A story on the Internet about the failure of a church to deal with a severely mentally ill member (more of which later on) reminded me of a pastoral encounter from some twenty five years. I was away at a conference when my wife rang me to say that she had had a phone call from a mother about her 22 year son who was close to death with cancer. I returned home immediately and visited the family that evening. I felt that my visit, and the effort in making it, was more appreciated by the mother than her son. Even though he was very close to death, he was unwilling to discuss anything about death, putting things right with the world and least of all about God. In a paradoxical way there was something courageous about this defiance of death and his refusal to take on board a belief system at the last minute which might, conceivably, have eased his passing. I left the house promising to call the next morning. I returned at 9 am only to find the mother in a dreadful state because the son had, at that moment, just died. My practical help at that moment was to close his eyes and try and say something comforting to the mother. I eventually left the house, not feeling terribly effective but at least glad that I had not arrived too late for one visit to the dying man.
There was a strange follow-up to this story some weeks later. While walking around the parish, I met up with a woman, who was a member of a extreme Pentecostal group, and who knew the young man who had died and his mother. I mentioned that I had seen him within 12 hours of his death, without mentioning how ineffective I had felt. Her response was to state categorically that if there had been a death-bed conversion through the acceptance of Jesus as his personal Saviour, God would have healed the young man instantly. I did not argue with her but pondered about which planet she was living on. Did she have evidence that anyone in a terminal state, as the young man had been, had ever received such a healing? I certainly had never encountered such a claim in the books I had read. At the time, I hoped that she would not add to the pain of the young man’s family by repeating such a claim to them. As far as I know, her extraordinary understanding about what might have transpired did not get back to the boy’s family.
I tell this story as an example of the potential abuse of the very sick, by a belief system which is sincerely held by many Christians. It is abusive because it loads people, who maybe are carrying extreme illness or pain, with many extra burdens. The last thing a person who is dying needs, is a confident fanatical Christian coming and telling them that they lack the faith both to get well and to get to heaven. That encounter did not, in my story, take place, but presumably members of churches of the type this woman belonged to are saying this all the time. Pastorally and theologically it is a disaster area. I cannot here unpack all the problems in this type of attitude except to say that I am relieved that none of the chaplaincy volunteers at our local hospital think and act in this way.
The Internet story that brought back this event after so many years was a story about one Abraham. I reproduce the story straight from the net.
‘ In the 1970’s, Emmanuel Baptist Church was a large church, one of the largest churches in the United States. The church ran buses all over the Pontiac/Detroit area. During my time at Emmanuel, the church operated 80 buses.
One of the bus riders was a young man name Abraham.
Abraham was a walking contradiction. He was a brilliant, crazy, mentally ill young man.
Abraham would walk up in back of people and snip hair from their heads. A week or so later Abraham would bring the person a silk sachet filled with the hair and his finger nail clippings. Needless to say, most of us were freaked out by Abraham and kept a close eye on him.
One day there was an explosion at the church. Abraham had built a bomb and brought to church. He carried the bomb into the restroom and, whether accidentally or on purpose, the bomb detonated. It was the last strange thing Abraham ever did. The bomb blew Abraham to bits. One man who helped clean up the mess said bits and pieces of Abraham fell from the drop ceiling.
At the time, I thought all of this was quite funny. I thought “I guess Abraham won’t do that again.” Years later, my thoughts are quite different. The buses brought thousands of people to the services of the Emmanuel Baptist Church. Most of the riders came from poor and/or dysfunctional homes. Their need was great, but all we offered them was Jesus.
Jesus was the answer for everything. Except that he wasn’t. As I now know, the problems that people face are anything but simple and Jesus is not the cure for all that ails you. What Abraham really needed was residential treatment and psychiatric care. What he got was a Jesus that could not help him. In the end, his psychosis won. ‘
The questions I leave with my readers from the two stories are these. Does the promise of ‘salvation’, physical, emotional and spiritual, come as good news to people who are burdened down with poverty, sickness and other intractable issues? Whatever we understand by the offer of Jesus to meet the needs of a suffering world, should we ever be so blind to the obvious needs of individuals that we fail to help them where they actually need help? Sadly we do not live in a world where the answer to every problem is ‘Jesus’. All of us crave simplicity in the face of the complexities of our world. Some will claim that they have found simple answers, through faith, to these complexities, while the rest of us know that many such answers point to their living in a fantasy world. The struggle to find paths to walk along, both for ourselves individually and collectively, is difficult. How many of us are now struggling with the question of who to vote for in a way that does justice to our Christian faith? The best we can, perhaps, hope for is to learn to live with the questions, than declare we have found the answers.